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Episode 10 Part 3

By:  Wynn

Guardsman Bullet Ruissir was a man of habit. He was very fond of keeping a daily routine: his regular training regimen with his sword, a morning and evening perusal of the latest news from Nathia, eating his meals at nearly the same time each day. He had become so immersed in this comfortable repetitiveness at his last post that his friends there had accused his of being part machine. Still, he had shrugged off their mocking complaints; he cherished what order he could find, and after being faced with the chaos of his profession it was a relief to clutch to things which did not change.

     However, Bullet was none too fond of the newest part of his morning ritual: greeting each morning by realizing that he was, in fact, still aboard a pirate ship. That, at least, could do with a change, he groused... again and again, each day.

And so it had been this morning, several hours before the knocking at his door. He had woken up at his usual hour, despite his strange surroundings, and had gone about his routine as best he could. Practicing his swordplay had been particularly difficult in the cramped confines of the chambers that Vonter had allotted him, but he decided to consider it part of his training. It was hardly the strangest thing he had been asked to do in the name of swordsmanship... Bullet shivered at that thought, the shadows of his teachers flashing through his memory.

     Bullet was sure that there were more adequate facilities on Vonter's ship for his exercises, but he had chosen against requesting to use them. This was at least partially due to the fact that most of the pirates aboard the Fickle Fate had hardly reacted well to his presence, not that he could blame them. After all, he had spent much of the past two years pursuing and capturing their ilk, and Nathian Guardsmen were widely known as the Council's hounds. Even if he hadn't encountered any of these criminals in the past, it was likely that some of his colleagues had, and he doubted that any such meetings would have left good impressions.

     This notion was reinforced by his daily visits from pirates sent to invite him to the captain's table for his meals. These appearances came earlier and earlier each morning, as if they hoped to catch him unprepared and off-guard. He had grown to relish the slight flicker of disappointment on their faces, however, when each time they found him fully awake and already clad in his Guardsman uniform. Pirates, at least those serving captains as seemingly lax and... eccentric... as Vonter, would probably prefer to spend their time off-duty sleeping or boozing, and no doubt they expected him to do the same. He didn't regret disappointing them.

     “Good morning to you, sir,” the pirate offered sardonically. “The captain would request your presence at the dining halls downstairs, should you have the time.” With his message delivered, the pirate pivoted and swaggered down the hall, no doubt eager to leave the Guardsman as far behind him as he could manage. Bullet watched him go for only a moment before closing the door to his chamber once more. He was all but ready to leave, but preferred to take a moment to compose himself. Speaking with Vonter had a tendency to be somewhat... taxing, otherwise.

     It was not long after that Bullet departed his room, following the path of the pirate that had been sent as this morning's messenger. He had, like the other mornings, chosen to stay attired in his Guardsman uniform, even though it did very little to ingratiate him to those he passed in the halls. He was not overly concerned with this; much the opposite; he was quite happy to maintain the line separating him from the pirates. He had reason to believe that Vonter was working to an opposite end, especially considering he sent a different pirate before each meal to fetch him instead of using the ship's intercom; Bullet suspected it was so that the crew would get slightly more accustomed to his presence, and perhaps he would be less reserved around them. If that was indeed Vonter's goals, he had failed to make much progress so far.

     Still, Bullet did regret that his own aims were equally as distant as they had been when he had first taken up temporary residence on the pirate ship. He had hoped to get some information, some clues or leads, about the Red Death. Instead, he had received... nothing. None of the pirates were eager to speak with him about anything, and the second he even mentioned the Norian, they tended to either blanch and find an excuse to quickly leave, or turned sullenly bitter. That left only his primary source of information about his prey, and, well...

     “Good morning, Guardsman Ruissir!” Bullet winced as he stepped into the dining hall and was immediately greeted by the over-enthusiastic voice of the pirate captain. “Glad that you could join us!” Bullet nodded dolefully as he made his way through the crowded room, ignoring the bladed glares and grumbling hostility from the pirates at the tables on either side. Vonter and several of the bridge crew sat at the largest table, which rested on a platform above the rest of the large room. Eating there always made Bullet uncomfortable, giving him inevitable feelings of being the center of attention. It seemed such was never a problem for Vonter, however, and the foppish commander continued to address the Nathian as he came, his voice instantly quelling all conversation in the room. “Come, come, have a seat, and see what our dear Pelardon has concocted for us this morn!”

     If there was one thing that made life aboard the Fickle Fate tolerable for Bullet, it was Pelardon. It was not his company that was reassuring; hardly so, as the needle-thin man seemed to despise Bullet even more than the others aboard the ship. No, it was the fruit of the man's arts: Pelardon was the chef aboard the pirate vessel, and he was a master of the culinary field.

     While Bullet had utterly failed at extracting any useful information from Vonter, after one exquisite meal he had managed to extract the story of how Pelardon had come to serve aboard Vonter's flagship. Originally the chef had commanded the cooking staff of a luxury cruise ship, much like the Decadence. Also like the Decadence, it had been visited by Vonter and his fleet, who had managed once more to claim their prize without a fight. However, Vonter, who had infiltrated the ship as one of the guests, had tasted one of Pelardon's masterpieces shortly before his ships arrived, and decided that loot would not be the only prize they carried away during their looting. And so, Pelardon had been taken hostage, a deviation from their usual procedures, but one that the other pirates had soon come to appreciate.

     As he had told this, Vonter had chuckled, quite proud of himself. “And so I made our skilled friend an offer. 'You can return to your old life, and be one of thousands of chefs like yourself, serving aboard thousands of cruise ships just like that one, or...'” Vonter had quoted himself, grinning sharply. “'You can come with me, and be a gourmet god amongst those who have tasted nothing like your work.'” This, along with the fact that Vonter also offered the man a full share of any loot taken during their pillaging, had cinched the deal. The fact that Pelardon could maintain his own innocence should Vonter's crew be taken by the authorities no doubt sweetened the deal, Bullet suspected as he took his seat at the table and waited for his plate to be placed before him.

     That was also likely why the chef had little affection for the Nathian: Bullet posed a threat to his comfortable culinary throne. However, Pelardon had little recourse to show his displeasure... save through the meals he presented the Guardsman. It had taken Bullet a couple of days to notice that his own plates seemed more disheveled than those of the others at the captain's table, the garnishing sparse and scattered and the portions immeasurably smaller. Fortunately the man's perfectionism kept him from any true retribution, and Bullet could certainly suffer through such punishment.

     “Is all to your liking, sir?” the chef asked Bullet ominously, leaning towards the Guardsman, his prodigious mustache wobbling with every word.

Bullet, spearing a chunk of meat and shoving it into his mouth, nodded enthusiastically. “Mrph, qnuite,” he managed through the barely-chewed bite. The chef shivered at his barbarity, leaning away and continuing on his rounds around the table.

     “I presume that this morning finds you well,” Vonter offered, nodding in silent gratitude to the affronted Pelardon before turning his eyes back to Bullet.

     “Mostly,” Bullet responded, lowering his fork as he reached for his glass of water, a rarity among the wine goblets in front of the table's other occupants. Taking a slow sip, Bullet lowered it to the tablecloth before gazing directly at the pirate captain. “Other than the fact that I feel like I've wasted the past few days chasing my own tail.”

     “Do you Nathians, ah... do that?” one of Vonter's colleagues, an orange-skinned hulk with too much muscle and too little neck, asked hesitantly. Bullet paused to glare at him before turning his attention back to Vonter.

     “You promised me information, Vonter. You know I am hunting the Red Death, and the sooner I find her, the-”

     “Please, please,” Vonter interjected, waving his hand in protest. “That is hardly the topic to grace a meal such as this with-”

     “We had a deal, Vonter.” Bullet glared across the table at the pale-skinned pirate, unable to keep the growl from his throat.

     “Oh, our deal? I believe that, in return for my aid, you would be assisting us in our fight against her underlings, right? Tragic, though, that you can hardly manage to do just that, seeing as how your ship is still in less-than-perfect shape down in our repair bays. At this point, I would say that you are in as much danger as we are,” Vonter drawled, smiling indolently. His verbal jab drew approving glances from several of the other pirates at the table, who were eager to see the Nathian suffer.

     Bullet flinched slightly at that point, remembering the sad shape the last battle had left his Silverfang in. The dock crew on the Fickle Fate had managed some superficial repairs to the craft, but most of the work would have to wait until they reached a port that regularly serviced Nathian ships... not a pleasant prospect, considering their circumstances. His fellow Guardsmen would be very pleased to apprehend Vonter, and he was sure they would have more than a few questions for him in the process. And they would force him to return, deny him his vengeance...

     “And I am sure you remember how it got in that shape, right?” Bullet responded darkly.

     “Yes, of course,” Vonter conceded, bowing his head slightly to yield the point. “Don't worry; I have no intention of reneging on our deal.  However, it would not do for me to offer up my side carte blanche, now would it? You will have your information. Eventually.”

     The other pirates at the table edged away from the Nathian, and even those below glanced up in alarm as they heard the deep growling coming from him. The only person who seemed nonplussed was Vonter himself, though even he refused to meet Bullet's gaze directly.

     “However... perhaps we could arrange some middle ground, eh?” Vonter shrugged, taking up his fork once more as Bullet watched him carefully. “Hrm... how about...” The pirate captain tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Ah, I know!”

     Bullet waited impatiently, certain that the other man had little intentions of making any real concessions. Nothing was ever that easy with Vonter.

     “How about this? Since you have questions you want answered, and since you currently can't offer much to our defenses... how about an information exchange?” The violet-eyed pirate beamed at the Guardsman, pleased with his suggestion. “A fair trade.”

     Bullet sighed deeply, shaking his head. “I have nothing you would want to know, and if I did, I wouldn't compromise the safety of my people by giving it to you.”

     “Oh, no, no, of course not!” Vonter waved his fork as if horrified by the thought. “No, I would ask for nothing so vital... only something to assuage my curiosity, that's all.”

     This was enough to make the Nathian hesitate. He didn't trust Vonter on that point, but that was hardly something new. Still, he couldn't resist the bait being dangled before him. If he could get any information, anything at all, that could lead him to the Norian that had destroyed Colony 96...

     “All right,” Bullet surrendered, eying Vonter cautiously. “What do you want to know?”

     “What, indeed?” The pirate captain smiled amiably, but shook his head. “Ah, but look! We've let our breakfast get cold!” He turned a piteous expression towards Pelardon, who responded with a nod laden with stone-faced weariness as he bent to collect the plates. “No, no, we should not allow ourselves to be so distracted... business is the surest way to a sour stomach, trust me.” His decision already made, Vonter nodded jovially to himself. “We'll discuss this later, once we've had time to properly digest.”

     “But-!”

     “Later,” Vonter interrupted casually. His smile didn't waver, but his eyes met Bullet's suddenly. “Perhaps in the conference room above?”

     Realizing that they sat in the midst of nearly a quarter of Vonter's crew, Bullet yielded by falling silent. He could wait, especially if it meant getting Vonter alone where he would be better able to interrogate the man. What was a few more hours, compared to the days he had already spent aboard the Fickle Fate? Patience was a small price for the chance to learn more about his enemy.

     And this time, he would have his answers. Whatever it took.

 

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